Either Marley Cartman had stepped in dog droppings, or the makers of her new lotion had a weird concept of sweet seduction.
She dragged the toe of her Jimmy Choo peep-toe across the concrete floor of the Humane Society lobby, thinking it was absurd she’d dressed this nicely to drop paperwork at a business with a goat pen in the foyer.
The goat snorted and stretched its neck out to nibble the edge of Marley’s overpriced skirt, so she stepped back, wincing as the shoes pinched her toes. Why on earth had she worn this?
You’re a new professional in the community, she reminded herself. Appearances are important.
So is having circulation in my toes, she wanted to argue back, but she straightened her skirt and gave the receptionist a broad smile.
“A little loud in here,” Marley shouted. Her voice vanished in a cacophony of barking and the metallic ping of kibble in dog dishes.
“I said it’s a little loud in here.”
The receptionist shoved a surly gray cat into a wire kennel and turned to display her ample cleavage and a name tag that said Tiff and Cascade Humane Society. “What?”
“Nothing,” Marley called as cheerfully as possible. “Um, do you think Ms. Peterson would mind if I waited outside until she’s done phoning the mayor?”
“Virginia stopped boning the mayor three months ago,” Tiff yelled with a smile. “Now she’s boning one of the county commissioners.”
“Okay,” Marley said, and looked back at the goat. It cocked its shaggy head to one side and bleated at her.
“Creepy, huh?” Tiff said. “I always feel like it’s staring at me.”
“It probably is,” Marley replied, reaching out to scratch a spot between its two stubby horns. “Goats have rectangular pupils so they can survey broad areas for predators. Maybe he thinks you’re plotting to eat him?”
Tiff laughed and shuffled a stack of papers to one side. “Are you a goat expert?”
“Not really. I’ve just been studying up on animal facts so I can be knowledgeable when I start my new job this Thursday at—”
“Marley Cartman?” Marley spun around to see a muscular brunette marching in with flushed cheeks and a pencil stabbed through her frizzy bun.
The woman thrust her hand out, not waiting for a response. “I’m Virginia. I’m so sorry to keep you waiting. We have a neutering clinic tomorrow and I’ve been inundated with calls from men wanting to know if they’re eligible and whether we’d tell their wives and… well, anyway, I’m so glad you’re here.”
“It’s great to finally meet you in person.” Marley shook the woman’s hand and dragged a toe across the concrete again. “I’m a little late getting here anyway. I hit some bad traffic getting out of Portland, and then I had to go extra slow over the mountains because of the U-Haul.”
“U-Haul? Are you finally moving here?”
Marley nodded and beamed, pinched toes and dog doo all but forgotten. “It took me a while to get my affairs in order and find a job here in Bend, and then my fiancé—well, ex-fiancé—made partner in his law firm, and since he didn’t get any offers on his house anyway, he decided to stay in Portland, but it’s all okay because I got this great job as the development director out at the wildlife sanctuary and, well, here I am.”
Marley did an outward shrug and an inward forehead slap, annoyed as usual by her habit of over-sharing. But Virginia smiled like Marley hadn’t just admitted her ex had chosen a corner office and granite countertops over pledging eternal devotion to Marley.
“Oh, that’s just wonderful,” Virginia gushed. “We’ve certainly appreciated all the pro bono fund-raising work you’ve been doing for us, but I always knew you wanted to leave the city and find a position over here where you can spend more time on your hobby.”
“Oh, right,” Marley said, feeling her face redden. She’d forgotten she’d offered to take pictures for a grant proposal several months ago, hoping to endear herself further to the Humane Society board. It had worked, and Marley knew the director’s reference was part of what had landed her the new job.
Still, she was hardly a photographer. The last picture she’d taken had been a cleavage shot she’d sent her fiancé—ex-fiancé—in hopes of adding sparks to their dying relationship. That might have gone better if she hadn’t sent the photo to her father by mistake.
Marley cleared her throat. “So I have the paperwork here for you. If you’d like to take a look at—”
Marley staggered as a soggy cannonball slammed into the back of her knees. She made a frantic grab for the edge of the counter, sending a pile of papers flying through the slats of a kennel. The obese Persian inside gave the documents a halfhearted sniff and closed his eyes.
Marley gripped the counter and whirled around. She stared down at a dirty, wet mop on steroids and four legs. A pair of large hands circled the creature’s chest and hoisted it off the ground, sending all four legs flailing and water dripping onto the concrete. The dog gave a startled grunt and farted.
“Sorry about that,” called the dogcatcher. He clipped a leash to a red collar and deposited the squirming canine back on its feet. Then he stood up, blew a shock of red-brown hair off his forehead, and flashed a high-wattage grin that would’ve made Marley’s toes curl if they weren’t crunched in uncomfortable shoes. “Magoo gets a little excited when he’s wet.”
Marley stared at the man’s eyes—one blue, one green, and tried not to fixate on the words “excited” and “wet.”
“Right,” she said, diverting her gaze from the mismatched eyes to a pair of broad shoulders and hair that glinted with hints of copper. She zeroed in on his T-shirt that read Free Tibet (with purchase of second Tibet of equal or greater value).
“It’s okay, I’m fine,” Marley said. “Just a little damp.”
“Aren’t we all,” Tiff said, eyeing the dogcatcher’s chest. The comment was probably supposed to be a suggestive murmur, but it came out more like a shout over the din of barking.
Marley felt her cheeks heat up. Virginia ignored them all and touched the man’s elbow.
“Will, honey, I’m not sure the bath’s really necessary. You know Magoo is next on the list.”
Tiff grimaced and looked at the dog. “Sorry, Magoo. Overcrowding. Nothing personal.”
The man stooped and gave the dog a scratch behind the ears. “Hey, he’s got a few more hours to make a good first impression here. He can’t do that smelling like lawn sausage.”
Marley dragged her soiled shoe across the floor and looked at Tiff. “You mean Magoo’s days are numbered?”
Tiff gave a sad shrug. “When the shelter’s full, we have to start taking a closer look at some of the less-adoptable animals that are older or aggressive.”
Marley stared down at Magoo, who was sniffing a potato bug. He didn’t look aggressive, so he had to be old. With her father’s happy thirty-sixth birthday card to her tucked in her purse, Marley could relate.
Never mind that she’d just turned thirty-five.
“You’re getting up there, Marley,” her father had said over dinner when he handed her the card and a check Marley knew she’d never cash. “Maybe it’s time you had more financial security in your life so you don’t end up in trouble like your mom did.”
Maybe it’s time I grew a pair and gave up my desperate quest for Daddy’s approval, Marley wanted to reply, but she’d settled for, “Please pass the salt.”
“Maybe Will can take Magoo home,” Tiff said, jarring Marley back to the present. “Like the other three.”
Magoo chose that moment to shake, sending a spray of muddy water into the nearby kennel and soaking both the Persian and Marley’s papers. The cat didn’t stir, and Marley looked at Magoo. His fur cleared his face for an instant, revealing one brown eye, one blue one.
“His eyes—they’re two different colors,” Marley gasped. “What is he?”
“Will?” Tiff asked. “He volunteers here every Thursday, but the rest of the time he’s—”
“The dog,” Will interrupted. “I think she meant the dog.” He smiled at Marley, making her stomach do a funny little flip. His mismatched eyes glinted with amusement. “No one knows for sure, but probably some mix of Australian shepherd and cocker spaniel and maybe anteater.”
“He has a bit of a licking problem.”
Prompted to demonstrate, Magoo swiped his tongue over Marley’s left calf. She knew she should probably discourage it, but she bent and scratched his ears instead. He looked up at her and wagged his stub-tail, and Marley’s heart did a warm little squeeze in her chest.
“Hey, boy,” she said.
Magoo sniffed her hand and licked that too.
“You have a dog?” Will asked.
“Nope. Always wanted one, but my mother hated dogs, and then I was traveling a lot for work and my fiancé—ex-fiancé—was allergic, which probably should have been a sign from the start, but—” Marley cleared her throat. “A simple no would have been better, huh?”
Will grinned. “Not really.”
“I don’t have a dog. Yet.” Marley looked down at Magoo, who was stretching his neck to lick her elbow. She smiled, feeling warm and joyful about her new job, her fresh start, the chance to do whatever the hell she wanted now. She scratched Magoo’s ear, and he leaned into her hand with a soft grunt of pleasure.
“He’s a good dog,” Will said. “A little too free with his affection, but I try not to hold that against anyone.”
Marley scratched Magoo some more, focusing on the dog’s mismatched eyes so she wouldn’t be tempted to study Will’s. “Are you really going to adopt him?” she asked.
“Can’t. My other three would revolt.”
Marley nodded and stood up, turning to Tiff. “I’ll take him.”
“Magoo or Will?”
Will laughed and pressed the leash into Marley’s hand. His fingers were warm and solid, and Marley felt a current of heat pulse pleasantly up her arm. “The two-for-one special isn’t ’til March,” he said. “I’m sure you and Magoo will be very happy together. You can pick out a new leash from that rack over there, or just take this one.”
“It’s free,” Tiff added.
“Free bag of kibble, too,” Will added. “I’ll go grab it.”
“You do have a home that allows pets, right?” Virginia asked.
Marley nodded and gripped the leash. “My dad owns a condo on the river. He’s letting me stay there for as long as it takes me to find a place of my own.”
“Free affection, free leash, free kibble, free condo,” Virginia said with a smile. “Lucky girl.”
Marley held the leash tighter, feeling the imaginary choke collar tightening around her own throat. “Free,” she repeated. The word tasted bitter, and she knew it wasn’t the stench of kennel making her eyes water. She squelched the familiar sense of dread, and instead looked down at her new pet.
Her heart gave a happy twist of gratitude, and Marley bent to pet him again. Magoo gave her shoe a suspicious sniff before raising his face to lick her knee …